Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Starchitecture

Art museums are host to two species of rats, those that skulk in the basements, gnawing on the art in storage, and, lower on the food chain, the people who handle the art. “Museum rat” is trade slang for the stagehands, the workers who hump crates of art off trucks at the loading dock, maneuver sculpture into position, hang paintings, set up lights, build pedestals, perpetually paint and repaint the walls of the galleries, and generally do the bidding of the museum’s commandants. Museum rats are the movers, but not the shakers, of the art world. Most of them are artists of one sort or another themselves, which is to say, bust-outs and delinquents in t-shirts printed with the names of bands and film festivals you never heard of.

During the nineties, I was one of that floating pool of feckless souls in the Twin Cities who get hired when a museum has two weeks to go before the opening of a show and too few hands to get the work done (the custom is to hire you for a stretch but then lay you off before you qualify for benefits or pensions). Most of my employment was at the University of Minnesota Art Museum, which before it transmogrified into the Frederick Weisman Art Museum consisted of a series of grubby galleries and offices strung along the fourth floor corridors of the moldering Northrup Auditorium. When the museum moved to its new quarters in Frank Gehry’s destroyer-class WAM–the crumpled sketch that served as the tuneup for the Guggenheim’s aircraft carrier in Bilbao–I was one of the deckhands, one of the crew who installed the billboard-size works by Roy Lichtenstein and James Rosenquist that hang in the front lobby and gallery of the museum. And it was I who with clammy male hands in white cotton gloves hung Georgia O’Keefe’s Oriental Poppies, said at the time to be worth two million bucks.

One of Gehry’s early sketches for the Weisman, scribbled on a cocktail napkin and since preserved with the reverence accorded a holy relic, was seized upon by the museum for a logo, hoping with this to create a perception of the place as a hotbed of spontaneously combusting creativity. The with-it acronym, WAM, strives desperately for the same effect—POW! For all that, the place is basically just a gift shop (the first thing you encounter on entering the building) with a small teaching museum attached. Besides teaching students how to make purchases of tasteful gifts and stand frowning thoughtfully before works of art, the Weisman also makes money by hiring itself out as a catering hall for conferences, receptions, yuppie nuptials, etc. Often when I came in to work on mornings after one of these events, the floors of the galleries would be garnished with wet bits of wilted lettuce and little gobs of buttercream from pieces of sheet cake accidentally flipped off paper plates the night before.

Gehry’s buildings, in my book, are architecture’s version of torn designer jeans. They imply radical experience without actually having to go through it. They gesticulate without it meaning anything. Inside the Weisman, the yawing walls reflect the gratuitously skewed planes and pointless curves of all the tin-snipped bling hung off the outside. In the museum’s carpentry shop, where I worked, the wall is canted uselessly inward; anything as sensible as a plumb wall would have been too mundane. I never measured to be sure, but it always felt like the shop’s longest dimension is the height of its absurdly unusable vertical space. The shop has no windows either—no eyes. . . it was like working inside a dumpster with the lid closed.

Rhapsodizing over the Weisman when the building opened fourteen years ago, however, critic Herbert Muschamp of The New York Times pronounced the new museum’s galleries “the five most beautiful rooms in the world.” I rubbed my eyes to be sure I’d read this right, but this was before I understood anything about criticism’s contributions to the science of buzz. The process by which a work is pronounced great is compounded of many sidewise glances at what other people think. Gathering mass, the consensus keeps snowballing, burying us in an avalanche of conviction that such and such a thing is so -– it must be. . . someone more important than us said it is.

It fell, then, to a couple of obscure museum rats, two anonymous art schleppers, to do something to subvert some part of the world’s received wisdom. One lunchtime a few weeks before the museum’s grand opening, they decided to circumvent the curators and put up a favorite work of their own as the very first picture ever to hang in the new galleries. The work was a portrait they’d found —actually a jigsaw puzzle, still wrapped in cellophane–of Barney the Dinosaur, sporting the beret of an artiste, a pallet and brush in his purple mitts. Following Barney’s installation as the museum’s maiden work of art, one of the perps set up a music stand in the middle of the echoing gallery and with great verve proceeded to play a rousing march on his dented old farting tuba. It was the high point of my life at the WAM.

Now, whenever I bike along the opposite bank of the river, I look across to the Weisman and think of that dinged-up tuba and the wags I used to work with in the building’s lower depths. As it happens, a fenced-off stretch of the riverbank opposite the museum has this past year been serving as a storage lot for some of the violently twisted steel recovered from the collapse of the I-35 W bridge. From its vantage point across the river, the Weisman, a building that itself appears to have been cobbled together from gum wrappers, looks out upon all that contorted steel rusting in the weeds across the river. Last year, Gehry was sued for dereliction after a $300 million research building he did for M.I.T. in 2004 started falling apart a few months after it opened. Before time stole his thunder, the great and terrible Ozymandias declared, “Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair,” but maybe what he meant to say was “repair.”